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Senators make headway on Russia sanctions bill, but 2 sticking points remain

Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Menendez, seen here during a hearing on U.S.-Russia policy in December, has said he's hopeful for a deal on a sanctions bill this week.
Alex Brandon
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Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Menendez, seen here during a hearing on U.S.-Russia policy in December, has said he's hopeful for a deal on a sanctions bill this week.

As concerns mount over Russia's aggressive posture toward Ukraine, a bipartisan group of senators is negotiating legislation that would impose crippling sanctions on Russia to act as a deterrent.

There's broad support for the sanctions bill to get done but two sticking points remain: Nord Stream 2 and when the sanctions should kick in.

"We keep working to fine tune that to get to common ground," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I think we can and will, and I hope to get it done sooner rather than later."

Menendez is working on the legislative package with GOP Sen. James Risch of Idaho, ranking member of the committee.

Nord Stream 2 is a controversial natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that runs more than 750 miles.

The gas isn't flowing yet, but critics of the pipeline argue its existence gives Russia too much control over Europe's energy supply. Last month, Democrats blocked a bill sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would impose sanctions on the pipeline. The White House and Democratic lawmakers argued such sanctions could drive a wedge between the U.S. and key European allies.

"[Nord Stream 2 is] going to be the last 't' crossed 'i' dotted before we get the ball across the finish line," Risch told CNN Sunday.

The second unresolved issue is the timing of sanction imposition. Republican lawmakers have pushed for penalties to be implemented ahead of any further steps taken by Russia.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday threw his support behind the idea of some sanctions now "to confront a litany of Russian threats, including their use of energy as a geostrategic weapon. At the same time, let's make clear we are prepared to impose even more devastating costs should Russia continue its aggression."

Menendez said sanction timing could be an area of compromise, although he acknowledged the Biden administration isn't keen on imposing upfront sanctions.

"They're not enthralled with the idea," he said. "But I have suggested to them that a strong bipartisan response is something that strengthens their hand."

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who led a congressional delegation to Ukraine last month, stressed the importance of sending a bipartisan message to Russia.

"What [getting a deal soon on the package] is tied to is just ensuring that here in Congress, we have a strong, bicameral and bipartisan message to the people of Ukraine, and to Vladimir Putin and the Russians, that one, we stand with Ukraine," he said. "What Russia is already doing is considered to be subject to sanctions now, and should they make a big mistake and actually invade Ukraine, the consequences would be devastating. So we agree with this on a bipartisan basis, bicameral basis, we need to express it clearly."

Senators have come to agreement on other aspects of the bill such as bolstering security assistance to Ukraine, possibly including a bill that would set up a lend-lease type program for the country, and helping counter Russian misinformation.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who was on the recent congressional trip to Ukraine, warned against downplaying the global significance — and potential ramifications — of Russia's actions.

"I don't know what we would use sanctions for, if not to punish a country from invading a sovereign neighbor," Murphy said. "This would be the most significant violation of the post-World War II order in Europe in our lifetime, and China is watching. If Russia gets away with this without any significant penalty, it'll just be a matter of time before China moves on Taiwan."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday the administration is encouraged by the ongoing bipartisan talks on how to hold Russia accountable.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.